Author and filmmaker Gregory Lamberson on bringing his first book, ‘Johnny Gruesome,’ to the screen.
How long would you hang on to a dream before you allowed it to die? In the winter of 1984, at the tender age of 19, I took a break from my wearying life as a movie theater manager and film school dropout in New York City and returned to my snowy hometown, the village of Fredonia, one hour south of Buffalo, ostensibly to write a movie screenplay. The fruit of my labor was titled Johnny Gruesome, an EC Comics–flavored revenge-from-the-grave tale populated by teenagers.
At the time, slasher films inspired by Friday the 13th were still the rage in horror cinema: films with silent killers stalking young women while wearing expressionless masks. I wanted to inject a dose of supernatural into my character, who would be a teenage version of the classic monsters I’d grown up watching, and something the world had never seen before: a wisecracking zombie never at a loss for James Bond–like quips. This was before Freddy Krueger hit the scene.
I never imagined my film to be anything more than a fun B movie, but my script included autobiographical elements and its setting, the village of Red Hill, was inspired by Fredonia. I got a copy to Vestron Pictures, the largest VHS distributor in the world, and “took a meeting” with two development execs who loved the script but were unimpressed with my lack of experience. Johnny went into a drawer, revived periodically whenever someone showed interest, and I pursued a career as the creator of several microbudget creature features, most notably the cult film Slime City, which has been released all over the world.
In 2006, the year my daughter was born, my wife and I were already living in Buffalo, and my first novel, Personal Demons, had won a publishing contest and a limited edition release. Unable to secure mass market publication for the book, which introduced my occult detective Jake Helman, I decided my second novel would have to be a commercial property that would attract a mass market publisher and entice that publisher to reprint Personal Demons and allow me to write other Jake Helman chillers. So Johnny came out of the drawer.
Johnny Gruesome hardcover edition (Bad Moon Books), Gruesome mask, and the Gruesome CD. Totally Gruesome!
The Johnny Gruesome novelization, packed with additional scenes, was published as a limited edition hardcover by Bad Moon Books in 2007 and as a trade paperback by Medallion in 2008. It won the IPPY Gold Medal for Horror and a Bram Stoker Award nomination, and a comic book sampler won Best Comic Book at the New York City Horror Film Festival. The book spawned a rock CD, a music video starring scream queen Misty Mundae and a collectible mask — but no movie. Medallion reprinted Personal Demons and published five additional books in the Jake Helman Files series. I believed the Johnny Gruesome novelization enabled me to lay my teenage monster to rest and I could move forward with other projects. But Johnny had other plans.
Johnny’s not dead… He was just resting…
In 2014, after completing principal photography on the horror comedy Killer Rack, and having worked in various capacities on larger films made by other people, I felt a gnawing in my brain and realized that, like Johnny Gruesome, I had unfinished business. For three decades I held on to the belief that my undead character had the stones for commercial success. At the age of 52, I knew I had to make the movie version of Johnny Gruesome and promised myself I would.
So began a yearlong process of courting different investors, all of whom expressed interest (and some of whom actually committed to the project) before disappearing into the wind. But I wouldn’t give up the ghost.
In April of this year, after yet another potential investor said yes before he said no, my friend John Renna pitched the project to Erin Elizabeth Heald, and after a pair of meetings with me and my wife, Tamar, Erin agreed to fund the film. A surreal few weeks followed, and then the money was in the bank and Tamar and I were buried in preproduction. Then Marshall came to town and turned everything upside down.
Writer/Director Gregory Lamberson on the set of Johnny Gruesome.
Since I directed the music video for Johnny Gruesome back in 2007, another dream of mine has been to build a real film industry in Buffalo. I’ve directed four feature films here, produced four others, worked in different positions on films that have come from out of town to take advantage of New York’s film production tax credit, and have cofounded two different film festivals. The story of Johnny Gruesome was created in Western New York, and I always intended to shoot the movie here.
Through my experiences on different projects, I assembled my dream production team. Unfortunately, Buffalo has enough qualified crew to staff only one production at a time, and Marshall, a $10 million feature starring Chadwick Boseman, Kate Hudson and Josh Gad absorbed every crewperson in town and monopolized all our regional film office support, leaving Tamar and me completely on our own to set up and preproduce our film.
We immediately started working seven days a week, 13 hours a day — a schedule which grew longer during production and continues now that we’re in postproduction.
Police Chief Matt Crane (Richard Lounello) on the set of Johnny Gruesome.
For the first month we had to set up our limited liability corporation, secure locations and insurance, navigate our way through Screen Actors Guild contracts, cast 30 roles, negotiate with managers, agents and lawyers, and hire an entire crew that was already working hard on another film.
Karen, Johnny, Eric and Gary of Johnny Gruesome.
My immediate concern was to hire the best actor possible to play my title character; everything hinged on him. Over 1500 applicants responded to an ad I took out in Backstage for Johnny and his girlfriend, Karen. Anthony De La Torre was among those interested in playing Johnny, and he had the look I wanted. It turns out he’s a musician as well as an actor, and as soon as I watched the music videos for his band De La Torre, I knew he was the perfect choice.
For Karen I cast another singer, Aprilann, who had zero film experience, in part because I loved her music video but also because she blew me away with her audition tape.
I chose the best actor I could find for every role, including Michael DeLorenzo, who had starred in the TV shows New York Undercover and Resurrection Boulevard and appeared as a regular on Fame and Head of the Class, as Johnny’s blue-collar father.
I cast local actor Byron Brown II as Eric, the hero; Chris Modrzynski as Gary, Johnny’s killer; and Madison Amey, Chris’s real-life girlfriend, as Eric’s love interest. Kim Piazza and Richard Lounello became schoolteacher Carol Crane and her police chief husband, Matt. And John Renna, my coproducer, took on the part of Michael Milton, the principal who crosses Johnny early in the film and pays a graphic price for it later.
John Vincent Grissom/Johnny Gruesome (Anthony De La Torre), writer/director Gregory Lamberson, and Eric (Byron Brown II)
Karen (Aprilann) and Gary (Chris Modrzynski)
Production lasted 18 days in Akron, Clarence, Lancaster, Cheektowaga and Buffalo. Seeing the perfect cast come together would have brought tears to my eyes if I hadn’t been so busy.
Because of the intense preproduction planning and the quality of our top-notch crew in all departments, shooting went as smoothly as I dared hope and ended far too quickly, with no unusual incidents. The special makeup effects, cinematography, production design and costumes were first-rate.
Now I’m working with my editorial team assembling the footage, which looks fantastic. Johnny Gruesome will be completed by the end of this year and will be released sometime in 2017. Hopefully my dream-come-true will be your nightmare. I’ve already written the script for the sequel.